The Typical Thunderclap Headache of Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome and its Various Triggers

Headache. 2016 Apr;56(4):657-73. doi: 10.1111/head.12797. Epub 2016 Mar 26.


During the last 10 years, reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) has emerged as the most frequent cause of thunderclap headache (TCH) in patients without aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage, and as the most frequent cause of recurrent TCHs. The typical TCHs of RCVS are multiple, recurring over a few days to weeks, excruciating, short-lived, and brought up by exertion, sexual activities, emotion, Valsalva maneuvers, or bathing, among other triggers. All these triggers induce sympathetic activation. In a minority of cases with RCVS, TCH heralds stroke and rarely death. Early diagnosis of RCVS in patients who present with isolated headache enables proper management and might reduce the risk of eventual stroke. This review describes the characteristics, triggers, diagnosis, and management of TCH in RCVS. One aim is to underline that the TCH pattern of RCVS is so typical that it enables, according to the 2013 revision of the International Classification of Headache Disorders, the diagnosis of "probable RCVS" in patients with such a headache pattern, normal cerebral angiography, and no other cause. Another objective is to discuss the role of physical and emotional stress in RCVS and in other related conditions involving similar triggers.

Keywords: depression; migraine; reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome; stress; stroke; thunderclap headache.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Headache Disorders, Primary / diagnosis
  • Headache Disorders, Primary / etiology*
  • Headache Disorders, Primary / therapy
  • Humans
  • Precipitating Factors
  • Vasospasm, Intracranial / complications*
  • Vasospasm, Intracranial / diagnosis
  • Vasospasm, Intracranial / therapy